It’s one thing to be bored by having to wait in line or sit through a dry lecture. It’s another thing to be bored with life itself.
What can you do about this kind of existential boredom?
My guest will share a remedy with us today on the show. His name is Kevin Hood Gary, and he’s a professor of education, specializing in the philosophy of education. We begin our conversation with the difference between situational and existential boredom, and how the latter arises when we toggle solely between work and amusement. Kevin argues that we need to add an element of leisure, as the ancients understood it, into our lives, and we talk about what that looks like, and how it requires embracing solitude, study, epiphanies, and love.
Connect With Kevin Hood Gary
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. It’s one thing to be bored by having to wait in line or sit through a dry lecture. It’s another thing to be bored with life itself. What can you do about this kind of existential boredom? My guest will share a remedy with us today on the show. His name is Kevin Hood Gary, and he’s a professor of education specializing in the philosophy of education. We begin our conversation with the difference between situational and existential boredom and how the latter arises when we toggle solely between work and amusement. Kevin argues that we need to add an element of leisure, as the ancients understood it, into our lives, and we talk about what that looks like and how it requires embracing solitude, study, epiphanies and love. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/existentialboredom. All right, Kevin Gary, welcome to the show.
Kevin Hood Gary: Thank you. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you recently published a book called Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, And The Quest For A Meaningful Life. What led you to write a book about boredom and how to deal with it?
Kevin Hood Gary: So I actually wrote a paper about 10 years ago on boredom and contemplation, and a colleague of mine in an Ed-psychology class was actually teaching the paper and shared that it was one of the most engaging readings. The students really, really were just taken up with it. And so he said, you should develop this further. And so that was a nice kind of nudge. And it’s a topic that’s been of interest to me for a long time, for a lot of reasons. One, because it’s just one of these enduring problems that human beings have had to contend with, and it’s a problem that’s linked to so many other problems. When we’re bored, we consume too much, eat too much, drink too much, idle our time. And so that’s fascinating to me. Whenever I would share with friends or family, I’m writing a book on boredom, the response I almost universally would receive was, wow, that sounds really interesting. Which I always found amusing given that boredom is defined as a state of disinterest. And I think the interest is that it’s really an interest in human flourishing. And if we’re living lives and we’re finding ourselves bored, we’re not flourishing. And so the kind of research and work that I do really is about what does it mean to flourish as a human being?
And this is just a central topic. And what I also enjoy about it is it draws on so many other disciplines. It’s a complex problem. There’s been a lot of psychology in the last 20 years, but it needs more than just psychologists. So theologians, philosophers, great writers, Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger has this beautiful quote on boredom which kind of echoes Pascal’s The Root Of All Evil Is Our Inability To Sit Still In A Room. So it just brings a lot of stuff together and really ultimately brings up questions about meaning and purpose, which I’m really fascinated with.
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about there’s two types of boredom that we encounter in life. The first one is situational boredom. How do you describe situational boredom?
Kevin Hood Gary: So actually Heidegger wrote some lectures and is credited with making this distinction between situational and existential. And situational he describes being at a train station, just being stuck in a situation that he wants to get out of, but he’s stuck. And this is before smartphones. And when we think about situational boredom, we usually think about it objectively. I’m bored by this lecture, or I’m bored by this book I’m reading. But it’s also subjective. We’re making an assessment about a situation. So what might be boring to one person could be engaging to another. So it’s a perplexing mood state. And we can think about sort of certain conditions that many of us would find boring. But there are people who are, this great writer, David Fenimore, described himself as unborable, just had an ability to sit with his thoughts and be engaged. And so it’s not just objective, it’s both objective and subjective with situational.
Brett McKay: So there’s two conditions for situational boredom. Like you’re just in a situation where there’s under stimulation. Like waiting at the train station, waiting at the post office. But then the second condition is a feeling that you’ve lost your agency. So that’s like the subjective part. There’s just nothing you could do. Your kids, whenever you hear your kids complain about being bored, this is an example of the loss of agency, where your kid says, I’m bored, there’s nothing to do. And then the parent usually responds, what are you talking about? You can go outside, you can do, but they feel like there’s nothing to do.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah, you’re stuck. And yeah, that’s a great example. I used to do technology fast weekends with my kids where I would say, all right, no screens. And invariably I’m bored, there’s nothing to do. They just could not see any way their agency could remedy the situation.
Brett McKay: And so we experience situational boredom on a daily basis. But there’s things we can do to alleviate situational boredom. You can get out your smartphone, you can read, or you could talk to somebody, you could play a game with your kid while you’re waiting for food at the restaurant. But the second type of boredom that you mentioned is more pernicious and difficult to deal with and that’s existential boredom. So what is existential boredom?
Kevin Hood Gary: So to be existentially bored, there’s a great quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. He describes existential boredom. He’s talking about someone who finally gets what they want and they realize they don’t really want it. It’s a desire for desires. A simple example I think of is sometimes looking at Netflix, trying to find something to watch, and you’ve got 5000 titles and there’s just nothing of interest, which is kind of amazing, given all the options to be engaged and interested. And so to be existentially bored is to suffer a more profound kind of boredom, where the situational solutions, going from one boring situation to an interesting situation, really start to exhaust themselves. And it really is calling forth, then I need to rethink who I am, what I’m doing, what is my existence even about? So it is a much more profound kind of boredom. The distinction, though, between existential boredom and clinical depression, which it’s a close cousin of. But I think the difference is, when we’re existentially bored, there’s still a hope that we desire for desires. We desire something to make life meaningful. There’s still a hope that we’re going to find it. So we’re still searching, if you will.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You gave this great quote from, it was Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar, kind of describing what existential boredom can feel like. I’ll read it out. It says, I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright white boxes and separating one box from another was sleep like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next day had suddenly snapped up. And I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. Just the, yeah, you just feel like, oh, man, it’s just monotonous. There’s just no point to going on. Why am I even doing this?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah, that is such a powerful and troubling quote. And to the extent that we fully identify with that quote, I think we’re probably moving into clinical depression. But to the extent that we identify with the quote and have some days that are like that, but thankfully are able to have resilience to move out of that, then I think we’re more in the existentially bored state.
Brett McKay: This existential boredom, this is the thing that humans have been grappling with for millennia. I mean, you highlight how theologians and religious thinkers have been trying to grapple with this. You think Monks, Catholic monks, they called it acedia. What was existential boredom like for them? Like, what was acedia?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. So I guess what I found, I don’t know, unsatisfying in a lot of the contemporary writing on boredom is it’s descriptive, and I was wanting more normative guidance on how do we contend with this mood-state. And so when you trace the lineage of this phenomena, the monks in the 4th century of Agrius, being one of the great writers talking about acedia, he’s talking about a thought that he calls or describes as one of the eight deadly thoughts that this is morally hazardous territory. When we’re falling into a state of acedia, which gets described as the noonday devil, which is called the noonday devil because it happens upon us in broad daylight without our even realizing it, we can just stumble upon it. And so you go from this eight deadly thoughts, which actually then become the seven deadly sins, with acedia being folded in to the sin of sloth. And I think that was a loss. I think there’s a theoretical richness to acedia that is really worth retrieving. But it goes from that to, in the renaissance, the French word melancholy, which was an attempt to understand boredom, not as a spiritual malaise connected to our status Vis-à-Vis God, but really as a medical or physiological phenomena.
Melancholy literally translates as black bile. And so the science of that is obviously proven not to bear out, but there still is an attempt to try to just completely medicalize it. And then when you get to the word boredom in the, I think it’s the 18th century, boredom is kind of a hybrid term. It’s trying to resist becoming either too scientifically reductive or too connected to a spiritual metaphysics. And so I think it’s really worthwhile to have all of these in conversation with each other, because Evagrius was actually not just diagnosing, but prescribing directives for how to contend with this troubling mood state.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah this existential boredom. I get the feeling I’ve experienced that, and I think that’s one of the problems of modern life. You hear a lot of people talking about burnout right? I’m burnt-out. And the way they describe burnout, it’s the same way that Monks described acedia back in the 4th century. And there’s another idea besides burnout, there’s rust-out right? Where you don’t feel like you’ve exhausted yourself, but you feel like you are under stimulated and you’re actually not calling upon all of your faculties to engage with life. And so you just feel blah… All the time.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And that’s a growing complaint amongst people. What do you think it is about modern life that makes us prone to be existentially bored?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah, I haven’t heard rust-out, I’ve heard burnout. And I’ve heard burn-in where I’m thinking about it in the context of teachers who don’t burnout leave the profession, but burn-in. They sort of settle and they stagnate and they, we’ve all had experience with teachers that are just not engaged. They probably shouldn’t be teaching, but they need a job. So what is it about modern life that leads to burnout? Aristotle talks about these two kind of spheres. There’s work where we’re on, we’re engaged, we’re trying to be professional, and we’re responsible, and we need a break, we need to relax. And that leads to then this other sphere of life, which is amusement, which is simply not working and just needing a reprieve from work. And I think that cycle plays off of each other in ways that are just not helpful, because there’s a whole nother way of being in the world which I get into in the book, where you’re contending with boredom and you seek amusement to avoid boredom, but you miss what I described as these restorative forms of leisure. This is what Evagrius and some of the monks were talking about. There are ways of being in the world that aren’t work, that aren’t amusement, which can often be an escapist distraction, but rather leisure.
And so I think not having leisure makes us prime to be burning-out or rusting-out, as you put it.
Brett McKay: Okay, we’ll talk more about leisure because this is, I love this idea, reviving this ancient idea of leisure. But before we do, let’s talk about boredom a little bit more because you go in deep into the philosopher, one of my favorite philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard, where he explores, he really grappled with the source of our existential boredom. So what did Kierkegaard believe was the source of our existential boredom?
Kevin Hood Gary: So Heidegger has a huge debt to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s authorship, I wrote my dissertation on Kierkegaard, and he begins his first pseudonym, poet A, is a person who’s chronically bored with life. And actually it was one of the most popular books that he wrote that sold the most, and it was part of either or. And so the second part of it was the judge. And the judge is kind of like a parent telling an aimless bored child, you just need to grow up. And the poet’s like, no, I’m not convinced I’m going to figure out ways to overcome boredom. And he has all these different boredom avoidance strategies, which are really kind of intriguing insightful. But it’s a later pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, who reveals that the poet is actually very confused about how to contend with boredom wisely. And so in looking at boredom, Kierkegaard doesn’t just see something that’s situational, he sees forms of despair that are taking hold. Kierkegaard has this really dense definition of the self, which I’m not going to read it exactly, but summarizing it. He says that the self is a combination of possibility and necessity. And in defining necessity, he means just the givens or determinants that keep us where we are. I’m thinking about this, actually. I got to visit a classroom a few years ago it was an 8th grade classroom, and the students were tasked with writing or copying a PowerPoint word-for-word for the entire period.
And I remember turning to one of the students and I asked, Is this a typical day? And the student said, we do this every day. And you could just see or feel the despair of necessity. The students, they weren’t disruptive. They were not creating any chaos, which actually would have been creating another possibility. They were just resigned to, this is all we can do. And there was one student, though, and this is where I connected to possibility, who was doing these wonderful doodles on her notebook. Finding an artistic possibility in the midst of this situation that was, I think, very much characterized by despair of resignation. And so to be given to the despair of necessity is to sort of not see a possibility for things to be otherwise. You’re just literally stuck. And that’s the kind of boredom where you, the response is just resign yourself to it. And I think that’s resonant with Henry David Thoreau’s People lead lives of quiet desperation, and I think he’s talking about the despair of necessity. We just do not see or can not imagine other possibilities for how to live our lives.
Brett McKay: Accepting the despair of necessity reminded me of Camus in the myth of Sisyphus right? So Sisyphus is pushing up that boulder for eternity, and then it rolls back down. And Camus said, well, that’s just absurd. But Sisyphus accepted the boredom, or he accepted that as absurd, and he just kind of derived some sort of weird pleasure from it.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah, yeah. And then the flip-side, so you’re stuck in necessity is the despair of possibility, which he defined simply as to be without necessity. And what he means by that is we tend to get caught up in a world of fantasy or possibilities. When we think about trolling through social media, we’re basically looking at the lives of others or watching Netflix. We’re just dwelling in the world of the possibilities for other people or other imagined people, rather than what is possible for me, given the necessities I’m contending with. And it’s in negotiating those two together where agency can emerge that is steering clear of these two poles of despair. The difference for Kierkegaard is he doesn’t think that we ever can do this on our own, that we need grace, we need something outside of us to help us navigate these two tendencies, these two poles. But I map these poles onto the two responses to boredom, one being resignation, and then the despair of possibility is when we encounter a boring situation, we just, we get out of it as fast as possible. We run from it.
Brett McKay: Okay. Yeah. I think we’ve all experienced the despair of necessity. So if you’re in a job that’s monotonous.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah.
Brett McKay: The despair of necessity, but then the despair of possibility, right, is when you’re, you get on social media and you’re flipping through Instagram, thinking, wow, that would be great to have this life, but you don’t do anything to…
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah.
Brett McKay: About it, so it just stays in possibility. And that can also lead to a weird type of boredom.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah, well, I think the despair possibility is simply boredom avoidance. So when scrolling through Facebook reels, I’m just sort of, it’s a very pacifying activity where I’m kind of lulled and I’m steering clear of boredom. But there’s also a certain despair quality to at least, I experience that when I’m doing too much of that.
Brett McKay: Right it’s like I could be that, but I can’t, or whatever…
Kevin Hood Gary: Right, right. Yeah or even, not even that. I’m thinking of, like, I was watching, it was on Facebook and these dash-cam accident videos.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah.
Kevin Hood Gary: It’s just like, why am I so captivated by this? And you can watch 20 of them in a row.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, so you’ve got the spare of possibilities where you’re just living vicariously through looking at the possibilities other people are living, or it could even just be possibilities in your imagination, but then you just don’t take any action on them. But then I think what you were talking about with the cars, looking at dash-cam cars, Augustine talked about this and he called it a curiosity toss. Humans have always had this tendency to try to relieve boredom by looking at any kind of novelty, even if it was like gruesome. Like in his confessions, he talked about back then when he was living, people looking at mangled corpses because it was just something to do. It was some kind of stimulation. And we do the same thing, but now we just look at dash-cam videos.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yep. And that’s essentially the news cycle, I think, in many ways so.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So let’s talk about how we can relieve this existential boredom. So existential boredom, it’s like a mood, I mean it’s closely related to depression, but you’re not depressed because when you’re existentially bored, you still hold out hope that there is possibility that you will feel meaning and be engaged with life. So you mentioned Heidegger he wrote a lot about boredom and he proposed a solution to existential boredom. What was his solution?
Kevin Hood Gary: So he talks about, many of us are living inauthentic lives, and we’re responding to situational boredom, and we’re buying or getting the latest phone or we need to redo our kitchen. And so we’re just sort of subsumed in the crowd and making decisions that are kind of, on the surface level, just avoiding situational boredom. But there’s a deeper existential boredom about meaning and purpose, and it really is. He said we’re living inauthentic lives. He characterizes it by chatter and curiosity in the sense that you mentioned, sort of a superficial chatter that’s just aimless and bantering about sports politics in a constant rotation, and a curiosity that is voyeuristic that’s just sort of aimlessly captivated by whatever’s happening. And this is where he’s drawing from Kierkegaard there really isn’t an agency, a strong agency to think about, all right, who am I and how should I live? What possibilities are viable for me, given the necessities that I’m contending with, so that we actually are choosing and making the choices ourselves rather than just sort of going along with the crowd or with the flow. And so that was the kind of authenticity that Heidegger was calling us to.
I’m critical of that version, though, I think there’s some problems with it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What are those problems? Why don’t you think Heidegger’s idea of authenticity is adequate to remedy existential boredom?
Kevin Hood Gary: And so to be fair, I think the way Heidegger’s idea has been picked up, I think Heidegger’s is far subtler than this. And so I didn’t want to go to war with Heidegger in my book. And so I kind of slightly dodged, but Charles Taylor talks about the ideal of authenticity being a really compelling ideal that I need to live my life and I think what it does is it places on us the burden of originality that I need to be distinct from other people. And it also then I think keeps us from thinking about the wisdom of a tradition, whether it be a religious tradition or perhaps I’m the son of a carpenter and I’ve got to be original. So I can’t just be a carpenter and you actually could be a carpenter. Your grandfather was a carpenter and there’s something to that work or the religious tradition that is part of your family. And so I think with the burden of originality, it puts so much on the self for how to decide how to live and what to live. And I don’t think that’s the way, we certainly aren’t brought up that way. We’re brought up in a variety of traditions. And then as we grow, we’re learning to critically appraise those traditions, but also critically adopt those traditions. And so this is where I think Heidegger would agree there’s an authentic way of embracing tradition.
I wrote a paper called The Originality of Cliches, and what I was getting at was that, we think about a wisdom tradition, a Confucius wisdom tradition or the Proverbs, it’s sort of tried and true ways of living that I think are viable, compelling options. And I think the ideal of authenticity, at least the way it can be constructed, can keep those as seeming like viable options because you’re being you’re being inauthentic.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I agree with you. The way that authenticity is described today or the way it’s put out there, it’s yeah, it’s being original. But it’s funny, you watch people on social media trying to be their authentic selves, but it ends up looking like everyone else in the end. And it’s superficial. Yeah, I think if you try to take this authenticity idea to escape existential boredom, it kind of you create like a double bind for yourself. So not only are you having to grapple with existential boredom, which can be it’s a like mood that just makes you feel listless and just you don’t want to do anything, but then you have to overcome the burden of creating an authentic self, which can be such a big project that that can also be just debilitating and make you feel listless like you don’t even want to try.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. Yeah. And to Heidegger’s credit, I mean, just the phenomenology of boredom that he lays out and he talks about, situational boredom, but he talks about going to, he was going to some cocktail parties and situationally, it was very engaging, but then he has a moment when he comes home later that night and he just, he just, it’s almost like an epiphany. He just realizes how boring it all was. It’s kind of like if you read Salinger’s Franny and Zoë, where she’s at some gathering in Ivy League College and she’s just bored by it. And so I think there’s actually something even prophetic about the boredom in those contexts that is calling forth something, but it doesn’t need to be, I need to create an original self ex nihilo. I, maybe I need to explore a tradition and get some guidance on how to live better.
Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors… And now back to the show. Okay. So if authenticity is not a great way to alleviate existential boredom, another way we relieve existential boredom is through what we call in our modern world leisure. But you argue that what we think of as leisure in the modern world is actually amusement. And as you said, Aristotle talked about this, like what amusement is. So what is amusement? And then what can we learn about modern amusements from David Foster Wallace’s essay about taking a cruise?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah, I love that essay. I actually did just recently go on a cruise and take issue a bit with David’s characterization. But my cruise was the Alaskan Passageway. And the cruise that he was on, I think, was more like a Carnival Caribbean cruise. So very different experiences. In that essay, he’s really taking a close look at when we’re pursuing amusement and a cruise being kind of like a capstone amusement event where you’ve got everything, you’ve got gambling, drinking, pools, screens, just everything altogether over an extended period of time. He’s kind of looking at himself and everyone around him, what is going on? And the way he characterizes amusement is he really describes it as a state of relaxation where we just do not have to do anything. We don’t have to make any decisions and we’re totally pampered. And he says, when was the last time when you were totally pampered and didn’t have to make any decisions and all your needs were met? And he said it was when you were in utero. And so kind of the telos, the end of amusement is to be anesthetized, comfortable, numbing.
And so he paints kind of an extreme picture, but I think there’s something to that, that in amusement, and I mentioned looking at a dash cam, there’s just a, I don’t have to do anything. It’s just this passive checking out. Sometimes it gets called vegging out, which, it’s striking that we call it vegging out ’cause when you think about someone as a vegetable, their mental faculties are just not operative. And so leisure is not that. And I found Wallace’s account to be just a clear illustration of amusement. And so when thinking about leisure, Aristotle says, no, there’s something different than amusement altogether.
Brett McKay: What it sounds like, I think Wallace made this point is that pursuing amusement to relieve existential boredom can actually increase our existential boredom even more, because as you said, like the cruise is sort of the perfect example of amusement, everything’s done for you. But when that happens, you don’t exercise your agency. And so you just become this passive consumer and agency is what makes us feel alive. It makes us feel engaged in the world. But if you no longer have that, when you’re being amused, you’re just going to feel existentially bored even more.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. Yeah. I think the paradox of an alleviating situational boredom, we are exacerbating existential boredom.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And so, yeah, you can do all these different things like Heidegger talking about, you can go to the dinners and the cocktail parties and you can have a great night, chit chatting. But then when you’re done, you go to lay in bed at night and you’re thinking, boy, I’m so bored with life. That’s when the existential boredom sinks in. Okay. So authenticity, probably not going to help us relieve existential boredom. Amusement. And there’s nothing wrong with amusement. Aristotle said amusement is fine. Right. It’s a break from work. It’s okay to get on social media, for 15 minutes, take a break from work. It’s okay to watch a football game, whatever, but it’s not going to relieve existential boredom. So he says leisure will. So what is this ancient idea of leisure? How is it different from amusement?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. So, I mean, you’re right. Aristotle, thank you for that point about amusement is fine and a part of life. And he describes amusement as a medicine, meaning that, we should take it in prescribed doses. And the concern is that life is work and amusement and that’s it. And so leisure and thinking about leisure and going back to the way we respond to boredom is we avoid it or we resign ourselves to it. I argue that leisure is this middle way. And also thinking with Aristotle, these mood states that come up, anger or fear, we can overreact to them or underreact to them. And in a similar way with boredom, we tend to avoid, avoid, avoid, or we just resign ourselves to it. Leisure is this middle way where we’re engaging with agency. And so it’s a different way of being in the world. And the simplest way to describe it is when we are having experiences that are characterized by sustained attention, the bored mind is easily distracted. TSLA talked about we’re distracted from distraction by distraction. And so needing to push through the itch to be distracted.
So sustained attention and then appreciating the intrinsic value of something or an activity. And it can be a whole number of things, but what’s key is our attention is sustained and so it’s not the attention required of work where we’re on and we’re kind of, having to be responsible. It’s an in-between state, nor is it sort of the passive consumption of amusement.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And what Aristotle said that the reason we work is so we can engage in leisure, like leisure is actually what we’re here to do as humans is engage in life in this leisurely way. How did other subsequent thinkers after Aristotle add to this idea of leisure?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. So leisure is the purpose of work and amusement. He holds it as the, as the ultimate telos of a human being, like when we’re engaging in leisure. And in Aristotle, it’s the contemplative life. And there there’s a bit of a rarefied elitism in Aristotle where it seems like it’s professors who are philosophers or astronomers. And I think there’s some point to that. I mean, basically saying is that when you are seeing the world and you’re just in awe and appreciating the intrinsic beauty of it, but to be fair, that’s not, that’s not unique to people who just study it. G.K Chesterton has a wonderful quote that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. And so leisure as it evolves post Aristotle, especially in monastic context, they’re looking at more ordinary, mundane ways where we appreciate the intrinsic value of an activity. And it could be doing astronomy, it could be reading Plato, but it could also be working in the garden where you’re just present to it. It’s sustaining your attention and you’re experiencing the intrinsic value of it. And so Josef Pieper talks about leisure as characterized by this receptive kind of attention, not a grasping kind of attention, nor a passive kind of voyeuristic consumer kind of attention.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think people have experienced that leisure state of mind when they’re on a walk in the woods, for example, you’re just walking and you’re enjoying just walking. And then as you’re hiking in the woods, you just kind of receive things like you’re not actually looking for things in particular, but you start noticing things or if you get in that flow state. If you’re doing a painting or working with your hands in your garage, or even just playing a sports, sometimes you can experience that when you’re playing a sport, you get in that flow state where you just kind of, you forget yourself. And, but then in the process of forgetting yourself, you actually feel the most alive.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. And I think that can happen. Unfortunately with sports and music, they’re so, have become so competitive and needing to be in the right travel soccer league that kids really do miss the intrinsic value there is in playing the game of soccer or football or tennis or playing violin. And so all of these are kind of ordinary spaces where we can have leisure, but they can be kind of corrupted by other external forces.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You can instrumentalize any of these leisurely activities. That happens a lot. Like you see this with people who start a YouTube channel about one of their passions. Survival or crafting, and they’re just doing it ’cause they just enjoy it and they want to share it with other people. But then it starts getting a lot of views and they’re starting to make money from sharing. And then instead of you’re doing it for the sake of just doing it for itself, you start doing this stuff to develop a following and create a business. And you no longer have a hobby or pastime anymore. You’ve got a business.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. Yeah. And so you’re approaching it now as work rather than as leisure. And so you’re bringing a different kind of attention to it in some ways.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So you talk about some thinkers who add to this idea of leisure and what we can do to develop this leisurely point of view. One of them is Alasdair MacIntyre and he introduced this idea of practices. What are practices and how do they help us develop the virtue of leisure?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. So MacIntyre certainly drawing on Aristotle, he makes the distinction between intrinsic goods versus extrinsic goods. And so the intrinsic goods of, playing a sports are just, working with other players, just the thrill of making a good pass in basketball. Whether you make money or get any kind of accolades is extrinsic to the actual game itself. And I think it’s a helpful distinction to think about intrinsic value and intrinsic good of things that we’re doing. MacIntyre though, is looking at complex practices. He would consider chess a practice, the game of chess or carpentry, basically complex social activities that have evolved over time and have a certain degree of complexity. I think there are other kinds of practices though, that he wouldn’t count in his list of practices, but it’s the key distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods that I think is theoretically very helpful.
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about, broadening the idea of practices to beyond these complex things, you talk about focal practices and focal practices Could be anything, it could be building a fire, it could be cooking a meal, could be working on a puzzle with your kid. Those very, they can seem very mundane, but they can become practices that can help you develop the leisurely outlook on life.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. And that’s Albert Borgmann, wonderful philosopher, studied Heidegger, philosopher on technology, just actually just passed away just this year. But yeah, the focal, the word focal comes from the word hearth in the home where the hearth, the fireplace was literally the focal point. And it required a lot of practices, the cutting wood, the tending the fire, it drew people together. But he does, he talks about walking, cooking. These are very mundane practices. A friend of mine invited me to go birding a year or so ago for three hours. And the paradox is, I’m offering these as the way out of situational existential boredom, but to the bored mind, these look boring. And so to understand the intrinsic goods of these practices, we actually have to experience it from the inside out. So as an outsider looking in, I have to confess, when I was asked to go birding, I just thought, oh, geez, I don’t know if I want to go look at birds for three hours. And that really is a reflection of my boredom proclivity. I mean, I can have a propensity to be easily bored and have needed these kinds of focal practices that, again, direct and hold our attention to one thing over a prolonged period of time.
Brett McKay: Right. If you’re a parent, you experience that with your kid when they’re like, I’m bored and you’re like, well, paint a picture, you’re telling them to engage in a focal practice. And they’re like, oh, that’s boring. And so what you have to end up doing is you have to just, you have to do it with them and you talk about this, like one of the things you have to do in order to develop this leisurely outlook on life, where you can see these mundane practices being meaningful is sometimes you need to be an apprentice. Like you need to have someone just show you, like you had your friend show you how birding can be really enjoyable. You might need to have a friend to show you, well, here’s how cooking can be enjoyable. Here’s how building this chair in your workshop can be, even though it might seem boring, it’s actually, once you get into it, it’s actually great.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. Yeah. And so you have to confer a certain degree of trust, which is what an apprentice does. I trust that this person knows something and I’m just going to be receptive to going through this practice and seeing what comes up. I often find this, my son is in scouts and so I’ve been going on camping trips and camping is a lot like that, where it’s a lot of work and you’re kind of like, why are we doing this? Why are we putting ourselves through this? But to experience the intrinsic goods, it’s only by going through it and trusting the process and the guidance of a master, if you will.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay. So if you’re having that existential boredom and you want to inject some more meaning in your life, but those things that you, that are proposed that can give you meaning, those simple things, you just have to trust. I’m going to just try it. I’m going to take a leap of faith, a kicker guardian leap of faith and say, I’m going to give it a shot and see, and then do it like with all your heart. Like don’t just kind of do it half way. There’s sometimes you do that where you’re kind of like, well, I’ll try, but I’m really not going to try. You really have to give yourself to it.
Kevin Hood Gary: Well, I think about it like in the context of, coming home from work, it’s been a long day and I just want to relax. I want to watch something and I want to have a drink. And so amusement is just so immediate and readily available. I mean, it’s just, you just, push a button and you’re getting amused. A focal practice walking when it’s 25 degrees outside is not sitting in shared drinking a beer, watching a show. And so the startup costs for a focal practice are much higher. And Borgmann talks about, there’s like a moral threshold. Like it takes more work to get dressed, to go outside, to walk for 45 minutes. But the restorative impact of a walk versus watching a show and to be clear, we can do some show watching, but I think what happens is again, it’s work and all amusement, work, all amusement. And so we miss the restorative, the restoration that can come through these wonderful forms of leisure, but they do require more at the outset. But the rewards are greater than the rewards we get from amusement.
Brett McKay: Okay. So first thing, if you want to adapt that leisurely outlook, become an apprentice, trust the process that maybe this thing can give you meaning. You also have the role of solitude and study in a leisurely life. What does that look like?
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. So I, years ago studied to be a Catholic priest and the second year was a monastic year. And once a month we had to spend a day in solitude and I was 23 years old. And that’s a pretty unusual thing, I think for a 23 year old to do. And it just became apparent to me and I was reading writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, just how distractible I was and just how manipulated I realized I was by just a culture that is constantly trying to, I think our economies are invested in us being bored so that we’re buying things and things are wearing out. And so it really was through that time apart in solitude that I began to not just read about it, but just recognize it in myself. And so going back to Heidegger, the chatter of modern life, I do think solitude is a valuable resource and underutilized resource. And by solitude, meaning that you are completely unconnected. You’re not in solitude with your phone because you’re always ready to be distracted. So I think that’s key. But again, back to the apprentice thing, I do think in living into these forms of leisure, we need community. We need support. I mean, to say that I’m going to start doing these leisurely things solo, ex nihilo, is kind of like that version of authenticity that puts too great a burden on you.
So I think we do need support. And then the solitude can be a great resource. The distinction between study and curiosity that Augustine makes is curiosity, is the voyeuristic, rubbernecking kind of mind where we’re just fascinated with the tragedies of others, or just the latest dash cam crash or whatever it is where we’re just kind of drawn into sort of this curiosity. The study is where we’re protecting our attention and staying with one thing, making sure that we set up a situation with some, even some guardrails to help us. A simple example is, I talk with my students about study versus curiosity. If you wanna have a really good conversation with someone, you don’t wanna go to Buffalo Wild Wings and have 50 TV screens around you. That’s curiosity. Study requires being present to one thing.
Brett McKay: Right. And yeah, you can bring this approach to anything you do, whether it’s writing a letter, washing the dishes, cooking. I had to… I’m replacing the basketball hoop in our driveway. And so I had to take out the old one that’s been there for, since before we bought the house. So I had to chisel it out with the jackhammer because it’s like, it’s embedded in the driveway. And people say, oh, that’s a boring thing. But I was very engaged. It took several hours to do. But I was just constantly thinking like, well, how can I use this jackhammer in a more an efficient, effective way so I can get more chunks of concrete? Like, I was taking a studious approach to it, and, it looked like, just tedious labor. But I actually enjoyed it. It was nice.
Kevin Hood Gary: That’s a great example. On the cover of the book is a painting by Vermeer, the Milkmaid. And what captivated me by it is it’s a person who is just engaged in a very receptive, single-minded way with one task. I can be so double-minded or multi minded in trying to optimize and do three things at once. And so there’s a combination of work, work amusement, but leisure is just innate, really giving yourself space to attend to one thing carefully.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then you’re opening yourself up to, I like this idea of leisure as being open. You’re… With work, you’re always got this goal in mind. Like, I gotta do this one thing. With leisure, the goal is there’s no goal. Like, you’re just open to whatever new possibilities are there for you. It’s an active passiveness. It’s hard to describe, but I know what you’re talking about. You do a really good job describing it in the book.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. And that’s peeper where he talks about that active passive. And so work is predominantly active, amusement is predominantly passive, leisure’s active passive. Thanks for bringing that back to me. And thanks for reading the book, Brett. You’ve just really dived into it. I’m really grateful.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s a great book. So, okay. Be an apprentice, trust the process. Solitude. Take a studious approach to these leisurely activities, even the most mundane things. And then you talk about this idea of remembering epiphanies to cultivate leisure in our lives. What do you mean by that?
Kevin Hood Gary: Well, I’m borrowing from James Joyce and in portrait of an artist as a young man, there’s these moments where Stephen Dataless falls in love with poetry, with literature, and just sees the beauty in things. And these are epiphanies. And we can think about, I have a student who’s a math major, and they have epiphanies where they just really fall in love with the beauty of this language. And so we can, over time, we can forget those and having an epiphany, I think what we’re experiencing is the intrinsic beauty of something. And so it’s really kind of this quintessential moment of beholding leisure where you’re just taken up with something. And so we can think about distinctive moments when we get into some kind of work or hobby. What was it that that drew you in?
And we can perhaps remember it was this moment, this moment of seeing. And so remembering those, I think is a way to help kind of reawaken our love for something. I’m thinking about it also in the context of teaching where teaching can be work that drains us and burns us out. And teachers, they do need that time, that restorative time to remember their epiphanies, so they bring that back into the classroom because they’re trying to awaken those in students as well. And if they’ve forgotten them, then it just becomes bureaucratic and loses its magic.
Brett McKay: No, I’ve experienced the importance of remembering epiphanies and wanting to be more leisurely. I experienced this whenever we host a dinner party at our house or sometimes get together. Because it’s like that there’s that threshold. It’s a high threshold to get over. It’s like, oh my gosh, it’s a lot of work. I gotta go get the food. And then you have to clean up and you just think about it like, I don’t wanna do this. But Then you do it, and then afterwards you feel, man, that was great. I’m so glad we did that. Had a great time. Got to connect. It was awesome. And so whenever I catch myself doing the, I don’t wanna have this party, I have to remember, wait, no, wait, last time we did this, you had a great time. Or you do that with your kids when your kids want to do something that’s like, oh, that just seems I don’t wanna do that. It’s like, no, last time I did, I felt great afterwards. And so it’ll help you. Give you that push over that threshold.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. No, that’s a great example. And I just had a dinner party a week ago and just lived that.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about these different things you can develop a leisurely approach to life. It’s an active passive approach. Maybe you do it with somebody else to help you get through that threshold, be engaged with it, and remember the times you enjoyed doing that activity. But in the end, you say the ground for leisure is love. What do you mean by that?
Kevin Hood Gary: Well, there are two things. One, I was thinking about when I was visiting my grandmother in her last days and in going to the nursing home. And nursing homes are bleak spaces. I find them kind of boring. There’s a TV on in every room, and there’s just a tedious, I don’t know, despair quality to it. And I just remember feeling that when I was going to visit my grandmother, but that mood state just really didn’t have, it didn’t matter, I mean, I loved my grandmother and I wanted to be with her, and yet, I was contending with boredom, and it was my love for her that kind of overrode that. So boredom is a state that we’re gonna have to contend with. I do think love is a greater force for contending with that. I was also thinking about in the context of the movie Groundhog Day, where the protagonist is profoundly bored.
He is stuck in the same day, and it’s repeating. Initially he’s quite amused. He’s able to divert himself with all kinds of amusement, but that runs its course. And then he is existentially bored. He then develops focal practices. He enjoys reading poetry. He’s creating music, but it’s not until he begins to see the other people in the town and actually have love for them, that he really solves the riddle of existential boredom. And so that’s what I was thinking with there, towards the end, it’s not as fully developed as I would like, but that’s something for the next project that I’m thinking about working on.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s, you talk about, Kierkegaard even said that life is repetition. And the key is if you have this love, for Kierkegaard, it’ll be like the love of God, like even that repetition doesn’t feel old and stale, it can actually be, it enlivens you, makes you feel like it’s meaningful. And your example of, visiting your grandmother in the nursing home, this reminds me, I know someone whose father is in the nursing home, and one thing he does is, he’ll go and visit him and they’ll watch this baseball game from like the ’90s over and over again because it’s something that his dad remembered and they did together that they enjoyed. And the experience is like really meaningful for this person. ’cause he gets to spend time with his dad, who’s got some dementia. They’re doing this thing over and over again, but because love is there, it feels leisurely.
Kevin Hood Gary: Yeah. That’s wonderful. I think about it also in the context of I’ve been married now for 20 years and just the simple repetitions and in married life where you’re checking in at the end of the day or in the morning and to my bored 20 year old self, it looks like, wow, marriage looks like a boring state. I’m like, no, actually this is part of the beautiful leisure and love of relationship that’s gone through time.
Brett McKay: Well, Kevin, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Kevin Hood Gary: Sure. So the book is on Amazon also with Cambridge Press. And I do have a website I’ve been giving talks at some universities, which is Kevinhoodgary.com And so, yeah, I’ve been going around giving some talks and doing some retreats. And yeah, it’s striking a chord. I mean, there’s a lot of work on boredom, but pairing it with leisure, I think is not a new idea, but I think it’s an idea that needs to be out there more.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Kevin Gary, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Kevin Hood Gary: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Kevin Hood Gary. He’s the author of the book, why Boredom Matters. It’s available on amazon.com. Check out our show notes at AOM.is/existentialboredom where you can find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanless.com where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on our podcast on Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.